Meet The ‘Ponics

Sep 28, 2016 | Sustainable Agriculture | 0 comments

The Dirt:

Salad from a rooftop?  Tomatoes grown in a warehouse?  Microgreens in a freight car?  Welcome to the new world of “‘Ponics” and indoor agriculture. Herbs, leafy greens, and vegetables are being grown indoors, on rooftops, in shipping containers, and vertically inside warehouses, bringing farms to an urban environment and helping to reshape the food supply chain. Let’s take a look!


Indoor agriculture is no longer just for the greenhouse— farm “land” can be created on a rooftop, contained in a repurposed shipping container, or made vertical in a multi-level warehouse. Because of new technologies and consumer demands, this is a fast growing industry. Moreover, these new methods of farming assume an important role in terms of the food supply chain.

Local and Fresh

As consumers, we are looking for transparency into the food supply chain. Where is our food coming from? Is it safe? How was it grown? Is it fresh, nutritious, local? New farming technologies are helping to answer that for fresh greens, herbs, and some veggies, which can be grown almost anywhere— making it local!  For instance, 90% of the salad greens consumed in the U.S. are produced in California and Arizona and shipped across the country or exported out of the U.S. However, companies like Gotham Greens and BrightFarms are enabling urban dwellers to buy locally grown greens, as soon as 24 hours after harvest. That certainly has a lot of appeal! It is more nutritious, tastes better, and can be cheaper as it cuts out much of the transportation costs. 

Making an Environmental Impact

Amid projections that the world’s population will grow from today’s 7.5 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050, the environmental pressures on our water, soil, and land are increasing. Alternative forms of agriculture are becoming another way to help these stresses, especially in urban areas where adequate farmland is limited. Creating “farmland” out of land out of space that would otherwise remain unviable is the future. High-tech growers using hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics are constantly innovating and developing ways to grow leafy greens and vegetables. Large metropolitan cities, like Chicago and New York, and cold regions with limited growing seasons, like Northern Minnesota and Wyoming, have the ability to grow local crops all year round.

Hydroponics is not a new technology. In fact, it has been around for since the earliest civilizations. One of the seven wonders of the Ancient World, “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon”, is believed to be a hydroponic garden. Hieroglyphics showed that the Pharaohs of Egypt enjoyed fruits and vegetables grown hydroponically.

graphic adapted from 

According to the USDA, the average yield for an outdoor farmer was about 30,000 pounds per acre and indoor farmers reported an average of 340,000 pound per acre.

A recent report from Cornell University, Urban Ag News,, the Association for Vertical Farming, and FarmersWeb on The State of Indoor Farming found that revenue could be up to 4000x higher in indoor farming systems because of the ability for multiple year round harvests, higher yield per acre and higher retail pricing (a premium for local or organic). For example, lettuce grown by a conventional farmer will have 4-5 harvests each year, whereas an indoor farmer can have as many as 18 harvests per year. According to the USDA, the average yield for an outdoor farmer was about 30,000 pounds per acre and indoor farmers reported an average of 340,000 pound per acre.

Head lettuce growing vertically hydroponically in a Freight Farm.
Source: Freight Farm
In addition to this increase in productivity, indoor farming practices also significantly reduce the environmental impact compared to that of a traditional farm. Indoor farms reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimize waste, and recycle water in order to produce the best, most sustainable crop. On average they use 85% less water, 80% less fertilizer, 70% less land than conventional farming. In addition, these companies are utilizing sophisticated technologies which continue to improve for facility construction, LED lighting, water circulation, plant nutrient delivery, and environmental controls.

Meet the ’Ponics: Hydro, Aero and Aqua

Because of these advancements, hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic farming systems are quickly moving from the realm of “experimental technology” to verified commercial applications. Researchers and growers alike have turned indoor systems into working models of sustainable food production. According to the new market research report “Vertical Farming Market”, the vertical farming market is estimated to reach USD 3.88 billion by 2020, at a compound annual growth rate of 30.7% between 2015 and 2020. The factors which are driving the vertical farming market include need for high quality food with no use of pesticides, less dependency on the weather, increasing urban population, and need for year round production.

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony in order to support present and future generations. Source: EPA


Hydroponic Farming is a method of growing plants in water, without soil. Plants are fed minerals and nutrients directly in the water where the roots grow.  This is particularly good for greens such as lettuce and basil and vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers.

Hydroponically grown lettuce. Image source: citycrop
Simple hydroponics: Nutrients are added to a tank of water to create a nutrient reservoir which is kept separate from the plants. The water is then pumped up a network of tubes, and is released to the plants individually. image source: hydroponicsgrower
source: Aerofarms


Aeroponics is a subset of hydroponics, but instead of the minerals and nutrients circulating within the root chamber, it is misted to the roots at regular intervals. NASA began studying the feasibility of plants grown aeroponically in 1990 as a way to have crew members grow their own food while circling the earth.


Aquaponics works on the basic idea of a closed production system. Farmed fish produce waste that is the perfect fertilizer for plants. Plants utilize the waste and filter the water to give the fish a clean habitat. The Aztecs grew a wide variety of crops such as maize, squash, and other plants in tandem with rearing fish for food. And as early as the 6th century Chinese farmers reared ducks, finfish, and catfish in an arrangement where the finfish were fed with duck droppings whilst the catfish were fed with the waste from the finfish. Any “leftover food” was used to supply the nutrients to the rice in the paddy fields.

image source:

Where Do These ’Ponics Live?

Freight Farms is bringing farming to the city. image source: FreightFarms

A new farmers initiative, Square Roots, is leveraging the Freight Farms technology to create campuses of indoor farms around the country.

…shipping containers

Freight Farms, based in Boston, uses the “Leafy Green Machine” (LGM), to harvest year round in any region of the United States. The LGM is a pre-assembled hydroponic farm inside an up-cycled freight container. The hydroponic system automatically delivers precise water and nutrients for maximum crop development and uses full spectrum energy efficient LED lights optimize each stage of the growing cycle. Vertical growing towers maximize space and create a high density growing environment.

Alaska’s Vertical Harvest Hydroponics is using the similar concept of repurposed shipping containers enabling fresh greens to grow in the most inhospitable environments, and Local Roots Farms, out of Los Angeles, appropriately has a list of commercial clients including Spacex!  What makes shipping containers unique is that they are transportable, can fit in small spaces, and can withstand extreme temperatures without affecting the crop. Microgreens, baby greens, culinary herbs, and lettuces are made available year round! The modular tower system from ZipFarms is adaptable to a hydroponic or aquaponic system, and can be utilized by commercial growers and backyard growers alike.

…rooftops and greenhouses

Gotham Greens has built and operates over 170,000 square feet of technologically advanced, urban rooftop greenhouses across 4 facilities in New York City and Chicago. They have partnered with Whole Foods in Brooklyn, and have built their greenhouses in strategic urban areas to distribute fresh produce within 24 hours of picking to retail operations. And their annual produce production…? 200,000 pounds! Equivalent to 100 acres of conventional field farming.

…in a warehouse

New Jersey based vertical farming company, AeroFarms approaches food production with aeroponics to mist the roots of greens with nutrients, water, and oxygen. The company asserts that their closed loop aeroponic system uses 95% less water than field farming, 40% less than hydroponics, and zero pesticides. Their growing technology is very modular and can be adapted to different repurposed industrial spaces. Harvest: Up to 2 million pounds per year. The New Jersey-based company produces some of produce annually, in large part by growing at a in Newark. MightyVine, based in Chicago, grows tomatoes all year round in sophisticated greenhouses using vertical growing methods. Producing 900,000 lbs of tomatoes per month in peak season!

Gotham Greens greenhouses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Gotham Greens, Bright Farms, and Mighty Vine are further examples of high tech agriculture companies that are innovating and developing ways to grow indoors. These commercial growers utilize hydroponics and greenhouses to produce leafy greens like basil, lettuce, and kale, and vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. BrightFarms finances, designs, and operates greenhouse farms at or near supermarkets, cutting time, distance, and cost from the produce supply chain. They operate three on-the-ground greenhouses in the greater Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Chicago metro areas.

While no one expects that urban agriculture will never replace traditional farming by the acre it does relieve some of the pressure off rural land and satisfy some of the hungry demands for local and sustainable agriculture.

Additionally, Green Sense Farms, from Indiana, harvests 26 times a year and since it has teamed up with grocery stores, restaurants, caterers and produce companies, can serve 20,000,000 people a year.

FarmedHere®, located just south of Chicago, is an organic, indoor vertical farm utilizing an Aquaculture system.  In this warehouse, fish and greens have a symbiotic relationship. This company produces 15 times as many crop cycles annually as traditional farming and uses 97% less water. They plan to open a second 24 acre facility in Louisville, KY in 2017.

Indoor agriculture is still in its early stages because the cost to scale for profit is large. The biggest equity raise to date was with Bright Farms who raised $30mm. Even though the overall indoor farming industry only raised $77 million in 2015 compared to $4.6 billion in overall agritech investment, the landscape is changing as fast as the latest crop is harvested. New technologies are constantly emerging.

Update January 2017:

FarmedHere, a pioneer of the new wave of commercial urban farms in the Chicago area, is closing its 90,000-square-foot Bedford Park facility for good, citing onerous operation costs and increased competition in the Chicago market. 

The Bottom Line:

Whether it is a rooftop, an abandoned warehouse, or repurposed shipping container, advancements in growing technologies are transforming land and space that was previously ungrowable into areas where local food can be harvested at all times of the year. Indoor vertical farms are viewed as a potential solution for the growing population around the world. If you live in an urban city, look for your local ‘ponic’ farm!


Crop Production 2015 Summary. USDA, Jan. 2016. Web. Sept. 2016.

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“How One Entrepreneur Is Disruption the Global Supply Chain for Produce.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, July 2016. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

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